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Transformation & reclamation: Habiba El-Sayed on the power of raw clay

Habiba El-Sayed in silhouette in front of a screen
9 months ago

Toronto-based artist Habiba El-Sayed uses a variety of materials and techniques to connect to, explore, and interpret aspects of her identity, particularly as a Muslim woman living in a post-9/11 world. She often uses raw clay in her performance art to express feelings of  futility, loss, hope, and reclamation.

On August 25 at 7 pm, El-Sayed will lead a virtual clay workshop as part of Clay Date, a new online fundraising event hosted by the Gardiner Museum Young Patron Circle. In this one-hour live stream, she’ll demonstrate a variety of approaches including slaking bone dry clay, draping it over found objects, and simple building techniques⁠. Participants will get their own packages of clay to experiment with at home.

Clay Date - An online fundraiser in support of the Gardiner Museum

In anticipation of Clay Date, we talked to El-Sayed about her early experiences with ceramics and how she sees raw clay as the perfect medium to express some of the complex emotions we’re all experiencing right now.

What first drew you to clay and ceramics as a medium?

When I was in high school, I got to attend a week-long craft program at the Harbourfront Centre. That’s where I was first exposed to clay and immediately fell in love with it. I dabbled in jewellery design for a couple of years but couldn’t stop thinking about clay. It’s a material with endless possibilities, when it’s both raw and fired, and that was very appealing to me. Because clay is reclaimable, it lets me be experimental without fear of failure or of wasting a precious material. I can always squish it up and try something new.

As the featured artist for Clay Date, you’ll be leading a virtual demonstration using raw clay. Why raw clay? What’s special about it as a material?

Beyond its malleability, raw clay is such an expressive material. It’s so reflective of our bodies and emotions. There’s an interesting duality, as clay is very strong but also very fragile depending on what state it’s in. I love how the material qualities of raw clay can be used to express complex feelings and ideas. It seems like the perfect material to explore some of the changes we are facing in our world today because it’s transformable and reclaimable.

The special exhibition RAW is currently on display at the Museum. It showcases four artists—Cassils, Magdolene Dykstra, Azza El Saddique, and Linda Swanson—who are working with raw clay in experimental ways. How have you used raw clay in your own practice?

I began using raw clay in my final year of university. First in more experimental ways combining it with metal, and then using clay in my performance art for my final show. Since then, raw clay has almost always been an element in my performance pieces. I’ve pushed hundreds of pounds of earthenware through a wrought iron gate, built a 15-foot-long structure, slaked down clay cookies with tea, and posed on a raw clay chaise longue to name a few. I often use raw clay as a way to express futility and loss, but also as a way to talk about hope and reclamation.

Habiba El-Sayed pouring tea over clay biscuits

You were originally commissioned to create a performance or activation using raw clay for SMASH, the Young Patron Circle’s annual summer art party. Like so many events and celebrations around the city, SMASH was cancelled due to COVID-19 and has been moved online in the form of Clay Date. How will your virtual workshop help participants express some of the things that we’re all feeling as a result of physical distancing? Do you see working with raw clay as being therapeutic?

It is definitely therapeutic. I think so many of us have just been trying to stay afloat through all this. I know for me its been a very complex set of emotions, at times feeling hopeless and uncertain and at other times happy for the opportunity to pause and reflect. I think we are all grieving something during this, but also celebrating. We have seen so many changes in society and in ourselves during this time and clay is such a perfect medium to illustrate transformation and reclamation. Using clay in unconventional ways frees us from the rules and restrictions we sometimes put on ourselves. Without the pressure of functionality or having to fire our pieces, it allows us to be more experimental, to fail and try again. The pandemic has meant a lot of adapting, relearning, and reclaiming our lives. There is also a sense of community and bringing participants together to learn something new and share our creations with the world.

What’s the most experimental technique that you plan to demonstrate on August 25?

Probably using different parts of the body to mold, sculpt, and create texture with clay. Our hands are the most conventional tool of all. Using other parts of our body may take us out of our comfort zone, but can yield some very interesting results!

Clay Date, hosted by the Gardiner Museum Young Patron Circle, take place on August 25. Click here to donate and participate.

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